The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (2007)

DivingBellAndTheButterfly

Update Feb. 23: Julian Schnabel just won the Best Director Trophy and Janusz Kaminski the Best Cinematographer at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica today.

Update Feb. 11: Ronald Harwood just won the Best Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTA (British Academy for Film and Television Arts) Awards in London last night.

Director Julian Schnabel is an established New York artist/painter. Adhering to the ‘neo-expressionist’ style, his work has been exhibited at galleries around the world.  In The Diving Bell And The Butterfly,  Schnabel has turned into a master of realism as he vividly captures the traumatic experience of Jean-Dominique Bauby, not with a paintbrush, but with the potent use of the camera.

Jean-Do Bauby was the Editor-In-Chief of Elle magazine in France. At the age of 43 he suffered a stroke. His whole body was paralyzed except his left eye. He became a sufferer of a rare condition of “locked-in syndrome”: while he was able to comprehend what others were saying to him, he could not communicate with them. As if trapped inside a diving bell deep in the ocean tethered to life by a single chord, he was encased in his own body, completely isolated from the outside world.

With the help of his speech therapist Henriette in the hospital, Bauby learned to use what was left in his ability: the blinking of his left eye. With this minimal movement, he opened up a portal of his inner world. By painstakingly blinking to select the letters of the alphabet, Bauby was able to dictate to his therapist his memoir, completed a few days before his death. This film is the visualization of the book.  To read my review and excerpts of the book, click here.

Imagine watching a movie with blurry camera work, frames cutting off the full head of people, and sometimes camera angle so close-up to a face you feel suffocated, …blurry shots, indefinitive dialogues…This is the realism of Julian Schnabel, the film director. He wants the viewer to look out from the left eye of Jean-Do Bauby.

Fortunately viewers are spared lengthy display of such realism, because in the memory of Bauby’s past experiences and in his imagination, we are able to see sharply focused and beautiful scenes… reality may be blurry and shaky, memories and dreams are clear as crystal.

From the artist eye of Julian Schnabel, to the blinking eye movement of Jean-Do Bauby, the film captures the poignant struggle of a human striving to live every single minute of everyday. It depicts the power of the mind and spirit, the humor that sustains, the painful yearning for love and intimacy, the daily human condition magnified a thousand times due to debilitation, the whole physical being tethered on the blinking of an eye and the inner searching of a soul alive.

Mathieu Amalric has a demanding role to play as the paralyzed Bauby, for his whole acting is confined to his one left eye. I must say he has done a remarkably engrossing and convincing feat.

Marie-Josée Croze (Best Actress at Cannes for The Barbarian Invasions, 2003), by taking up the role as therapist Henriette Durand, has the equally demanding task of looking into the camera and reciting the French alphabets numerous times, and each time, with passion, pathos, and persistence, each time transmitting a new beginning, a new hope.

Max von Sydow (with film credits too numerous to mention), the veteran actor playing the role of Bauby’s 92 year-old father, equally shut-in, yet ever alive in spirit, the only character seeping sentiments, however restrained. It is exactly because of such restraints that pathos gets through.

And Emmanuelle Seigner, the ex-wife of Bauby, the mother of his three children, the keeper of memory, creator of new experiences, and the butterfly for the soul trapped in the diving bell. A marvellous character.

Very poignant acting, a very dynamic and powerful movie, and, despite its subject matter, an uplifting film for every living, breathing, and feeling soul.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is nominated for 4 Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Directing, Best Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. For the full list of Oscar Nominees, click here.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

Canadian Content at the Oscars

Ellen Page Ellen Page

sarah-polley-on-the-set-of-away-from-her

Sarah Polley


Update Feb. 25: Diablo Cody won the Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars last night. To read my Oscar Results post, click here.

Update Feb. 23: Juno just won the Best Feature trophy at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica today. Ellen Page won the Best Actress Award and Diablo Cody won the Best First Screenplay Award. To read my Independent Spirit Awards post, click here.

I’m glad to see some significant Canadian representation in this year’s Oscars Nominations:

  • Toronto’s Sarah Polley, the now 29 year-old director of Away From Her, getting the nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • Ellen Page, the 20 year-old Juno star from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Best Actress.
  • Jason Reitman, Montreal-born director of Juno for Best Director.
  • The film Juno, directed by a Canadian, starring two young Canadians Ellen Page and Michael Cera, and filmed in B.C. getting a Best Motion Picture nomination. (Even though it isn’t classified as a Canadian film due to its American producer Fox Searchlight)
  • Of course, others like directors David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and Paul Haggis (In The Valley of Elah) both have Canadian roots.

To read my review of Juno and Away From Her, just click on the movie title. (Update: To read my review on Ellen Page’s new movie Smart People ( 2008 ), click on the title.)

Also, while some call 2007 “Oscar’s Year of the Man”, it is all the more exhilarating to see the two young Canadian females Ellen Page and Sarah Polley acknowledged in a very male-dominated industry in the U.S.

Who cares what country they’re from, you may ask. Well, I do, because I once had to correct someone who strongly believed that Michael Ondaatje, the writer of The English Patient (1996), was an American author. And for that matter, just for clarification, Sarah Polley’s screenplay of Away from Her is adapted from Canadian writer Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain”. And, watch for another Canadian literary icon Margaret Laurence’s novel now being turned into film, The Stone Angel (2007), also with Ellen Page.

Just a little clarification, Canada is more than just Margaret Atwood.

Andrew Davies Interview

Thanks to a Jane Austen and film fan, I just received a link to an interview with Andrew Davis on CNN dot com.  Davis’ recent adaptation of Northanger Abbey (2007) will be shown as the second installment of Masterpiece Theatre’s “The Complete Jane Austen“, to be aired on PBS this Sunday, Feb. 20.

Master of screenplay adaptations of literary classics and especially Jane Austen’s works, Davis has some interesting views to share in this AP article entitled:  Sex, Class, and Exposing the Heart of Jane Austen.  Here’s the link:

 http://edition.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/18/apontv.andrew.davies.ap/index.html

Enjoy!

The Kite Runner: Book Into Film

The Book

Kite runner

I read The Kite Runner last summer, and it has remained one of my favorite books. It might as well be called Atonement, because that’s exactly what it’s about.  But this time, the character, Amir, has to deal with the sin of omission.  Just the same, failure to act can lead to devastating consequences, and Amir, just like Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, has to live with his guilt throughout his life.  Unlike Briony, Amir has a chance to redeem himself.   As Amir’s mentor Rahim Khan says: ‘There’s a way to be good again’, despite the tragedies that have already taken place.
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Highly acclaimed as the first Afghan novel written in English, The Kite Runner became an international bestseller, publishing in 40 countries.  Author Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, son of a diplomat. His family sought and received political asylum in the United States as the Soviet invaded Afghanistan, settling in California in 1980 when he was 15.  Hosseini later studied medicine and became an internist practicing until 2004, when he began to devote his time fully to writing.
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The book is neatly divided into three sections, the first narrates the childhood of the socially privileged Amir growing up in Kabul.  His best friend is Hassan, the son of their servant Ali.  The two boys grow up together, freely roaming the streets of Kabul almost as brothers.  Hassan is totally dedicated to Amir.  He has been Amir’s kite runner, retrieving downed rival kites, and defended him from bullies.  During one horrific incident, Amir betrays Hassan.  Deeply troubled by guilt, Amir devises a plan to ultimately rid himself of the source of his torments, indirectly driving Ali and Hassan out of their household.
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Upon the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Amir flees to America with his father.  The second part of the book chronicles Amir as an adult, his once fragile relationship with his father is forged stronger as the two strive for their new life in a distant land.  Before his father’s death from illness, Amir gets married and realizes his dream as a writer.  The third part of the book depicts Amir’s journey back to the now Taliban controlled Afghanistan to fulfill a mission that would ultimately lead to his personal redemption.
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I was moved as I read the author’s poignant first-person narratives.  This is the power of words in the hand of a sensitive and talented writer, articulating the deepest feelings otherwise hidden beyond reach.  I enjoyed the first part the most.  Through vivid description and deceptively simple language Hosseini depicts poignantly the friendship of Amir and Hassan, the loyalty of Hassan and the betrayal by Amir, and ultimately the separation of the two childhood friends.
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The political upheavals are used as a backdrop, adding texture to the story.  The book is not about the Soviets or the Taliban.  It’s about a father-son relationship, family, friendship, love, and loss.  Above all, it chronicles the life-long haunting consequences of one’s action or inaction, the atonement of wrong done, and the necessary journey in search of redemption.
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And for the kite soaring high in the sky, it may well be a metaphor for freedom and victory, not just politically, but internally, being set free from burden, from guilt.  Despite a relatively weaker second section, overall The Kite Runner is beautifully written, an engrossing and satisfying read.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Movie

The Kite Runner Movie

Update Jan. 22:  The Kite Runner has just been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score.

First off, I must state that I’m evaluating the film according to its own genre, as a film.  And to be fair, the movie follows the story quite closely, almost dividing the script into three sections like the book, and telling the story adequately.  Ironically, such direct transfer does not fare well with the film medium.  The transition of scenes are sometimes quite abrupt and choppy.  The same dialogues are there, but the mood is missing. The eagerness of storytelling seems to have overshadowed the artistry of movie making. As a result, the film lacks the power to engage.

I must say though, there are merits that I should acknowledge.  Kudos to Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada for portraying young Hassan so movingly.  He’s probably the most affable and natural actor in the whole movie.  His presence is the appeal of the film, and he well deserves the Critics Choice Award nomination for Best Young Actor.  Unfortunately his role only appears in the first part.

Transferring the story to screen, director Marc Forster (Stranger Than Fiction, 2006) has taken advantage of the visual element, bringing to life the excitement of the sport of kite combat.  To North American audiences, such scenes may well be a spectacular eye-opener.  The original score by Alberto Iglesias (Volver, 2006, Constant Gardener, 2005) plays an essential part in the movie, imparting the intended effects where other film elements may be lacking. His composition earns him a nod from the Golden Globes for a Best Original Score nomination.

The movie attempts to present the cultural sights and sounds of Afghan life, albeit on a very small scale. My main disappointment though was to find out, as the end credits rolled, that the Afghan scenes were all shot in Xinjiang and Beijing, China.  Was I too naive to think that a movie about Afghanistan should be shot in Afghanistan?

As I was watching the movie I felt something was missing, but couldn’t pinpoint what.  I felt the acting by the main character, the adult Amir, played by Khalid Abdalla (United 93, 2006) and his wife Soraya (Atossa Leoni), to be distant and detached.  Maybe due to their lack of acting experience, their performance seem to be less intense and expressive than what the story demands.

Now that I’ve given it some thoughts, I think the lack of the intimacy which the book so successfully delivers can be compensated on screen by a narrative voice-over.  The personal narrative of the book is what makes the story poignant and moving.  The film could benefit from a first person narrative to draw viewers closer and to convey more effectively the hidden turmoils that can’t be expressed cinematically, or technically.  A well written narrative voice-over could impact the audience in a more haunting way as the book has achieved.

Overall, the movie is an adequate adaptation of the book, but it only offers a glimpse of what the book entails. As a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Golden Globes this year, hopefully, it can draw viewers’ interest to dig deeper into the profound story by reading the source material first hand.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Atonement: Book Into Film


The Book

Imagine my surprise as I finished Austen’s Northanger Abbey and opened up Ian McEwan’s Atonement to find this epigraph in the beginning of the book:

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.  What have you been judging from?  Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English: that we are Christians.  Consult your own understanding, you own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you.  Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads, and newspapers lay everything open?  Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Henry Tilney’s somber words to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey sets the stage for the story in Atonement.  Not only that, these words prove to be the most tragic irony as the plot unfolds, turning Austen’s satirical parody into heart wrenching reality.

The story starts off in the 1930’s, on a hot summer day in the idyllic country estate of the upper-class Tallis family.  The misinterpretation of a couple of incidents by imaginative 13 year-old Briony sets off the events that ultimately rip the whole family apart.  Later in the evening, Briony witnesses a crime but falsely accuses the wrong man, who happens to be her older sister Cecilia’s secret lover Robbie, the housekeeper’s son.  Is it merely the misunderstanding of a young girl that drives her to bear false witness? Or is it jealousy…or even revenge?  Maybe even Briony herself, as she recollects at 77, is baffled by her own motive. The heart is indeed an unsearchable deep to fathom.

Regardless of the cause, it is the consequences of her misdeed that has tormented her all her life: the breakdown of family relationships, the innocent sent to jail, and later to a horrific war zone, and a pair of lovers torn apart.  As she cannot undo the past, Briony re-creates in the sanctuary of her own novel writing an alternative ending to a tragic story. Fantasy or realism?  As she reaches old age and dementia sets in, the line between the two has also blurred, and yet her inner torments stay as sharp as ever.

Through Briony’s story, McEwan has poignantly shown that remaining unforgiven is probably the harshest punishment of sin.  No matter how hard one works to be redeemed, the act of forgiveness lies with the one who has been wronged.  In the latter part of the story, we see Briony’s painful strive for peace and atonement, and her realization that redemption comes only when sin is pardoned.  Without the forgiveness of sin, there is no end to guilt.

But the story is not only about Briony’s desparate attempt to come to terms with her past, it is also a love epic.  It is the heart-wrenching chronicle of the perseverance and loyalty between two lovers, Cecilia and Robbie, who, sustained by love, are able to withstand the searing pain of separation and atrocities. It is about the absurdity of war, that in the chaos of a war zone, everyone is guilty, and yet, everyone is a victim. It is also about the essence of a family and the fragility of relationships.  The multi-layered structure of the plot and characterization give rise to the complexity and depth of the story.

Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan has written 11 novels and won numerous literary awards.  The novel Atonement has garnered four since its publication in 2001.  McEwan has shown himself to be a master of descriptive and incisive writing.  His story is riveting.  At times I have to read slowly, going back to re-read a passage several times, in order to capture all the details and savour the intricacies of the description and characterization.  At times I read it quickly to capture the flow of the plot, eager to find out where it would lead me.  The author has my emotions in his grasp.  I have to admit, this is one of the rare occasions that I highlight as I read a novel.  Overall, a very engrossing and satisfying read.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Film

Atonement the movie

Update February 11:  Atonement just won Best Picture and Best Production Design at the BAFTA (British Academy for Film and Television Arts) Awards in London yesterday.

Update January 22:  Atonement is nominated for 7 Oscars at the 2008 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score.

Update on January 14:  Atonement won the 2008 Golden Globe Best Picture (Drama) and Best Original Score Awards announced at the HFPA News Conference last night.

With such a masterpiece in their hands, the screenwriter, director, actors …the whole lot, have a tall order to fill in turning the book into film.  I must say they have done an extraordinary job in this adaptation.  The film is nominated for 7 Golden Globe, including Best Picture (Drama), Best Actress and Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

Unlike many movies based on literary work, this is one of the rare ones that truly depicts the essence of the book and keeps the integrity of its plot.  Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Oscar winner for his screenplay of Dangerous Liaison, 1988 ) has gleaned the pivotal episodes and remained loyal to the work, keeping the epic span intact; although the war section can be dealt with more details and depth as the novel has rendered.

Thanks to the great work in film editing, the audience can readily capture the flow of the story and benefit also from the seamless flashbacks to see the same event from another point of view, hence, understanding Briony’s misinterpretation. I’m sure even for those who haven’t read the novel, the storytelling is still clear and equally intense.

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, 2005) uses the elements of film powerfully to bring to life an excellent script. The music and sound effects (who would imagine the typing sound on an old Corona can be used so effectively in a musical score), the cinematography and the visual flashbacks, the costumes and set all work together to create a masterpiece of cinema artistry worthy of McEwan’s work.  Kudos to Dario Marianelli (The Brave One, 2007; Pride and Prejudice, 2005), who has composed a most riveting score heightening the intensity and poignancy of the film.  I must also stress that, while the music is a powerful element in the movie, the silent moments are equally engrossing.

Young Briony, 13 year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (I’ve read different versions of how her first name should be pronounced so I’m not including any suggestion here) well deserves the Golden Globe nod for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.  Veteran actress and Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave is brilliant and her poignant summing up at the end is both needed and satisfying. I’m afraid to say the weak link is Briony at 18, played by Romola Garai (Amazing Grace, 2006), where she could be more intense and affective.

And for the lovers, Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2007, 2006; Pride and Prejudice, 2005) and James McAvoy (Becoming Jane, 2007; The Last King of Scotland, 2006) as Cecilia and Robbie, may well go down in movie history as a memorable pair of star-crossed lovers. Their acting is superb and their chemistry, charismatic.  The passionate scene in the library just confirms that it doesn’t need nudity to convey love, desire, or sensuality.  I had in mind the movie Lust Caution (Ang Lee, 2007) as I was watching this scene.

Knightley and McAvoy are nominated for a Best Actress and Best Actor award at the Golden Globes.  For their very moving performance in Atonement, I’d like to see them continue the ride all the way to the Oscars, and I wish them well.

Overall, an excellent adaptation of an enthralling novel.  Don’t wait to read the book, go see the movie.  But I’m sure after that, you’ll want to get hold of the novel right away.  This is one of the rare examples of both book and film are worthy of complementing each other.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Lust, Caution: The Original, The Translation, The Movie

Let me jump on the bandwagon and join in the discussion of the latest Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; Brokeback Mountain, 2005) movie. Lust, Caution has garnered much praise and recently won the Golden Lion at the 64th Venice International Film Festival.  Before my review, I’d like to offer some background here relating to the original short story on which the film is based, as well as its translation.

THE ORIGINAL

Eileen Chang 1920 - 1995“Lust, Caution” is a short story written by Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), a writer born 1920 in Shanghai. Chang attended the University of Hong Kong from 1939 to 1941, majoring in Literature.  As the Japanese invasion advanced to Hong Kong, Chang had to cut short her education there and return to the then Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1942, where she began her vigorous writing career.  In a few short years she had gained popularity as a novelist, short story writer and essayist.

Eileen Chang had been compared to Eudora Welty and Katherine Mansfield, and was considered one of the few eligible contemporary Chinese writers as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In 1952 she went back to Hong Kong and continued to publish, finally moving to the United States in 1955. A year later she married the scriptwriter Ferdinand Rehyer.  After Rehyer’s death in 1967, Chang continued to be prolific as a writer and translator of her own works, many of which had been turned into screenplays.  The more well known ones include Red Rose White Rose (1994), and Love in a Fallen City (1984), garnering numerous nominations and awards.  Apart from writing, Chang had also taught at Radcliffe College and UC Berkeley.  She lived reclusively in the latter part of her life and in 1995, died alone in her apartment in Los Angeles.

Chang’s style is crisp and explicit, her choice of words sharp and sensual, her subject matter contemporary.  Considered progressive in her days, Chang boldly dealt with the dichotomies of eastern and western cultures, tradition and modernity, and inevitably, male and female power relations, love and betrayal.  “Lust, Caution” the short story exemplifies her style and encompasses these subject matters.

In ‘Lust, Caution’, Chang has demonstrated that she is a master of story-telling.  Her talent lies in her succinct and incisive descriptions, the economy of words.  It is this feature that the 39-page short story is so compelling and memorable.  The story moves swiftly, effectively spilling the thrill and suspense, and bringing its reader to an intense and hard-hitting climax and ending.

Following the succinct style of Eileen Chang, here’s a synopsis of the story.  Wang Chia-chih, a university student, was recruited by a group of amateur student resistance to play a role in the assassination of Mr. Yee, the head of the secret police in the collaborative government in Japanese occupied Shanghai during the 1940’s.  Her mission was to seduce Mr. Yee and gain his trust, setting the stage for her fellow resistance members to strike.  Throughout the story, Chang intertwined the elements of love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, mass patriotism and individual desire to effectively move the story to an explosive climax.

lust-caution-chinese-book-cover-larger-size.jpg

The Special Limited Chinese Edition I have is some sort of a movie tie-in edition.  It includes the 39 page short story, printed pages of Chang’s orginal handwritten manuscript, an article written by herself in defence of her story against a critic, and another short story published posthumously.  It is published by Taiwan’s Crown Publication, just freshly out in September, 2007.  If you read Chinese, this is a valuable collector’s item.

THE TRANSLATION

Lust Caution English TranslationThis movie tie-in English edition (New York: Anchor Books, 2007) is aptly translated by Julia Lovell, professor of Chinese history and literature at the University of Cambridge.  True to the style of Chang, Lovell’s translation is succinct and incisive, moving the story swiftly and thus enhancing the suspense and intrigue.

I find her Forward particularly helpful in that she included her own insight on the characterization, furnishing her readers with the essential background to Chang’s own life, which paralleled the protagonist Wang Chia-chi.  Her discussion on Chang’s writing style and the political realities during the Japanese occupation of China in WWII is particularly useful for one to appreciate the story.

Lovell’s commentary is lucid: “…[the climax and ending] give the story its arresting originality, transforming a polished espionage narrative into a disturbing meditation on psychological fragility, self-deception, and amoral sexual possession.”

This little book includes as well an Afterword by director Ang Lee, and a provocative essay by screenwriter/producer James Shamus, who also teaches at Columbia University.  A good read on its own.  If you read English, this is a keeper.

THE MOVIE

Lust Caution

I must admit, I had read the story in its original Chinese version twice and the English translation once before I went to see the movie.  Whether this could have affected my opinion can well be a possibility.  I went into the theatre with high expectations after reading the numerous reviews and comments from LC fans.  I was also aware that a movie should be judged on its own merits as a different artistic genre from the literary work.  After all, I had written on this topic in my post Vision not Illustration.

As a Chinese film director, Ang Lee has the advantage of visualizing Eileen Chang’s story as an insider, one who is in touch with the language, and the sociocultural and historical background.  Armed with these qualifications, Lee has successfully created an appealing atmosphere of nostalgia and exotic visualization through cinematography and symbolism.  He has laid out for his viewers a delectable visual feast.

But maybe because of his very attempt at perfecting the mood and setting up in details the scaffold of the story, Lee (or should I say the screenwriters James Schamus and Hui-ling Wang) had taken a bit too much time in the process.  I feel the 158 minutes could be shortened to keep alive the element of suspense. Further, being an experienced and talented director as Ang Lee, I’m sure if he so chooses, he can think of different ways to portray passion and possession without explicitly telling so by mere graphic eroticism scene after scene.  Ironically, the raw erotic displays may have robbed the viewers of the very emotions the director has intended for them.  I long for the swiftness of Eileen Chang and the subtlety of Wong Kar Wai as he did with In the Mood for Love (2000, also with Tony Leung).  Especially when one considers the laconic and intense climax bursting out at the end, the earlier part of the movie seems to be disproportionately long and off-balance.

As far as the delectable feast goes, the period costumes and setting, the cinematography, as well as the performance by the highly skilled actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen are all laudable and must be given credits.  As a first time actor, Tang Wei is proficient in capturing the ambivalence of conflicting emotions and longings as Wang Chia-chih.  American born singer/actor Lee-Hom Wang is adequate as an amateur student resistance leader.  Ironically, just because of his lack of experience in acting fits well with his role, depicting the raw naivety of the young patriots of the time.

Despite the concerted efforts of the cast and crew and the well intentions of the director, the film is bogged down by a script that ought to have been shortened by at least a half hour to bring out the element of suspense, and keep the integrity of the spy-thriller genre.  In her defence of the brevity of description in her story, Eileen Chang wrote, “I never underestimate the critical thinking skill of my readers.”  If the screenwriters had marked her words, the film would have been much more effective and gratifying.

~~2 1/2 Ripples

Vision not Illustration

Read a post entitled “It’s All About the Story” on the Austenblog relating the controversial remarks the Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway made recently in an international film festival.  He criticised modern blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, dismissing them as “not films but illustrated books”.  As for all the Austen movies sprouting up in recent years, Greenaway said:

Cinema is predicated on the 19th-century novel.  We’re still  illustrating Jane Austen novels—there are 41 films of Jane Austen   novels in the world.  What a waste of time.”

This is my response.  I recognize that not all attempts of turning books into films are successful, many far from being effective.  However, a good movie should be the portrayal of a vision, not mere illustration or graphic representation of the written words.  As I have commented in that post, let’s just say a film is the visualization of the novel, not mere illustration.

And there is a major difference between vision and illustration: the former is seeing through an interpretive lens, rather than simply transferring images from one medium to another like the latter.

That’s why we may like a certain adaptation over another of the same Austen novel, and that’s why there can be more than one movie on the same story… Just as Bach had created Theme and Variations, we can have Story and Adaptations. That’s the reason why we still go to the concert hall and listen to different masters playing the same pieces of music, infusing into their performance their own unique persona and interpretation.  As an art-house filmmaker, Mr. Greenaway should have grasped this very fundamental notion.

As for future endeavors to turn Austen novels into films, I say, “All the best!”

Field of Dreams: Baseball for the uninitiated?

Saw Field of Dreams (1989) on AMC last night, and this time, it hit me harder.  Watching the movie again has stirred up some ripples, deeply and belatedly.  To say that Field of Dreams is about baseball is like saying Cinderella Man is about boxing.  Movies like these speak to us not because we are necessarily sport enthusiasts, baseball or boxing fans, but that we, every one of us, belong to a family, or at least in memory, and that we are a part of the human race.

By heeding a voice telling him to build a baseball field in his cornfield, Ray Kinsella unknowingly began a journey of reconciliation.  Using baseball as a springboard, and through the characters and the ingenious twists in the story, the movie leads its viewers, who are as unknowing as Ray, to taste the almost mythical reality of dreams fulfilled, past yearnings realized, and lost relationships redeemed.  The film satisfies by simply portraying the very possibilities that these miracles can happen.

It is because of these universal themes that the film can reach far beyond nationalities and borders.  In fact, the original story is not written by an American.  The movie is based on the book Shoeless Joe, which is written by a Canadian author, W. P. Kinsella.  Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Kinsella used to teach English at the University of Calgary.  (I still remember listening and taping his interview on a CBC radio program…oh, those were the days.)  Among the numerous awards and nominations the movie has garnered including an Oscar Best Picture nomination, it won the 1991 “Best Foreign Film” category in the Awards of the Japanese Academy.

Critics who love to associate Kevin Costner only with Waterworld should at least remember that, he is the man who brought us such American modern classics as Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves….all other failings are forgiven, easily.

~~~3 Ripples

WWJW: What Would Jane Write?

thejaneaustenbookclub2

The Jane Austen Book Club

Calgary International Film Festival 2007

Some time ago, I was using the phrase “intellectual chick lit” to describe the book Literacy and Longing in L.A. to a friend and was instantly retorted with: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”  I had no reply.  Maybe to respond to the bad rap “chick lit” and “chick flicks” have been getting, a few writers have infused literary ingredients in their concoction in their attempt to create more intelligent work.  The Jane Austen Book Club falls into this short list.  The book written by Karen Joy Fowler (2002 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist) was turned into sceenplay by Robin Swicord (Screenplay, Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) who made her directorial debut in the movie.  I had the chance to view it on the first day of the 2007 Calgary International Film Festival.

The book club is established with the original intent of consoling Sylvia, who is recently divorced from her husband Daniel.  It is a plan conceived by her good friend Jocelyn, a never-been-married dog breeder.  Following the theme of Austen’s Emma, Jocelyn has brought along the only male, Grigg, to the club, intended for her friend Sylvia.  What follows is the expected outcomes, Grigg falls for Jocelyn instead of Sylvia, who later reconciles with her estranged husband, while the other members of the group also are either hooked up with new found love or have their relationships mended.  Very neat, very happy, very clean ending.  Is this what Jane would have written if she were around today?

TJABC reminds me of the British movie Love Actually, which was released during the Christmas season in 2003.  Dealing with the love affairs of eight different couples in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season has got to be a swift and jolly feat.  The movie remains a montage of famous British faces delivering superficial Christmas cheers under the banner of love.  TJABC has just slightly fewer characters, with six members in the group responsible for leading discussion on one of the six Austen novels.  Despite the juxtaposition and parallels of Austenian motifs and plots, I feel that both the movie and the book circumvent the periphery of contemporary life and relationships without offering much depth and insights as Austen’s own work. But of course, who is comparing Fowler with Austen?  Having said that, I must say I’ve enjoyed the acting of some of the characters, especially Prudie (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), and Hugh Dancy (who would have thought he’s a Brit?)

Coming back to my original question:  What would Jane Austen write in this 21st century?  Would she fall for “chick lit” that can be turned into romantic comedies, for good cheers or box office successes?  Would Jane Austen be a mere romance writer, or “chick flicks” producer? Carol Shield noted that Austen’s heroines “exercise real power”, given their disadvantaged social positions.  Martin Amis stated “her fiction effortlessly renews itself in every generation.”  Virginia Woolf said about Austen’s writing: “That was how Shakespeare wrote.” Harold Bloom commented on the somberness of her work.  Thornton Wilder claimed that Austen’s “art is so consummate that the secret is hidden.”   Fay Weldon summed it up well:  “I also think … that the reason no one married her was … It was just all too much.  Something truly frightening rumbled there beneath the bubbling mirth:  something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.”  Thanks to Fowler for including such commentaries at the back of her book.

Austen is a sharp and incisive social commentator of her time, a progressive thinker holding a sure sense of morality, and a brilliant observer of human nature and relationships.  Her wisdom is well crafted in the disguise of humor and satire, her vision covered under seemingly simple, idealistic fervor.   Her critique of the manner and injustice of society, if transferred into modern day context, might not appeal as “chick” or as “romantic” as many of us would want to see, or can accept.

What would Jane write?  Definitely not “chick lit”.

~~1/2 Ripples for both book and movie

The Painted Veil

 The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil (2006)– In contrast to my review of Away From Her (Posted May 22), this is one movie I’m afraid I’ve to say, ‘words are mightier than the scenes’.  Not that I don’t appreciate the great cinematography, the angle, lighting, and the depth of many of the frames in presenting a very appealing piece of cinema artistry, but somehow, I don’t feel for the characters and empathize with their situations as much as when I was reading the novel by William Somerset Maugham. The characters seem to have lost their complexity, the plot thins out and the resolution seems too instant. I miss some great lines in the book that seem to have been unfortunately cut out in the screenplay.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Maugham’s writing, Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, The Painted Veil as well as his short stories.  However, movie making is a totally different art form and business venture from book writing and publishing.  Finding the key to transform one to the other remains a unique quest for each project.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other Maugham’s work in film, such as Being Julia (2004), and quite like Up At The Villa (2000), but not as excited about The Razor’s Edge (1984), and now The Painted Veil (2006).  Transforming great lines from a book into equally inspiring visual story-telling is an arduous task, and it’s something that mere beautiful cinematography cannot suffice.  Nevertheless, I do applaud Edward Norton in his undertaking this difficult assignment…I’m sure shooting a movie in China poses its particular challenges.  I’d love to see more Maugham writing turn into films, and wish more contemporary versions can be made…maybe a modern day Of Human Bondage?

~~ 1/2 Ripples

Away From Her

away-from-her

Update Jan. 28, 2008:  Julie Christie has just won the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Actress Award for her role in Away From Her.

Update Jan. 22, 2008: Julie Christie has just been nominated for a Best Actress Award and Sarah Polley for Best Adapted Screenplay in today’s Oscar Nominations announcement.

Away From Her (2006)–How can you make a good short story even better? … By turning it into a screenplay written by an equally sensitive and passionate writer, and then, through her own talented, interpretive eye, re-creates it into a visual narrative. Along the way, throw in a few veteran actors who are so passionate about what the script is trying to convey that they themselves embody the message. Such ‘coincidents’ are all happening in the movie Away From Her. Sarah Polley has made her directorial debut with a most impressive and memorable feat that I’m sure things will go even better down her career path. What she has composed on screen speaks much more poignantly than words on a page, calling forth sentiments that we didn’t even know we had. Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent stir up thoughts in us that we’d rather bury: how much are we willing to give up for love, or, how would we face the imminence of our loved ones’ and our own mental and physical demise. Based on the story by Alice Munro, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, Polley brings out the theme of unconditional love not by your typical Hollywood’s hot, young, and sexy on screen, but aging actors in their 60’s and 70’s. It may not be as pleasurable to watch wrinkled faces hugging and kissing, or a man and a woman in bed, bearing age spots and all, but such scenes effectively beg the question: why feel uncomfortable? Why does love has to be synonymous with youth, beauty, and romance? It is even more agonizing to watch how far Grant is willing to go solely for love of Fiona. Lucky for us, both writers spare us the truly painful at the end. It is through persistent, selfless giving that one ultimately receives; and however meager and fleeting that reward may seem, it is permanence in the eyes of love. And it is through the lucid vision of a youthful, 28-year-old writer/director, that such ageless love is vividly portrayed….Oh, the paradoxes in life.

~~~ 3 Ripples

(Photo Source: Guardian.co.uk)